The Obama administration on Friday announced that it has notified Congress that it soon will transfer two detainees from the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to their home nation of Algeria, the first repatriations from the detention center in 10 months.
The announcement of the transfers came the day after the Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, William K. Lietzau, notified his staff in an email that he would be leaving his post at the end of August.
Administration officials said the timing of the two events was purely coincidental, but their combination spurred speculation that there was new momentum to achieve President Barack Obama’s first-term pledge of closing the controversial tropical prison camp.
An administration official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive Guantanamo policy, said it was fitting that the transfers were announced after Lietzau said he would be leaving. The official noted that Lietzau had a reputation as a tough defender of holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo even if there was no enough evidence to charge them with a crime.
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"He was an obstacle," the official said. "There appeared to be divergent views on the existence of the facility. He just wasn’t on board with the president."
Some advocates of closing the detention center said the moves were good news.
“We’d heard wonderful words before, but the transfers were the evidence we’d been waiting for,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counter-terror council at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. As for Lietzau’s resignation after a stormy three and half years, she noted, “It’s not so much the individual, but that it would seem to make sense to bring in a new envoy with a new policy.”
Others were more skeptical. “No one will be throwing parties because (Lietzau’s) leaving, not me, not our clients, because it’s the policy that matters, not the individuals implementing it,” said Cori Crider, of the Guantanamo detainee advocates group Reprieve in the United Kingdom.
President Barack Obama in April vowed to redouble efforts on a failed first-term campaign promise to close the prison for terrorism suspects. As part of that initiative, the State Department appointed a new Guantanamo envoy, Clifford Sloan, to help engineer the closing, and promised to appoint someone at the Pentagon in a similar capacity.
In his email to his staff, Lietzau, who as a Marine Corps lawyer was one of the original drafters in 2004 of the Bush administration’s first plan for military trials at Guantanamo, a plan that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2006, made no mention of any policy differences over the detention center. He said he was leaving the Pentagon because he had accepted a job as vice president of PAE, a company that was founded to provide architectural services to U.S. military construction projects in Japan but that now provides a variety of services to U.S. military and diplomatic posts throughout the world.
“I promised that I would tell you as soon as there was any possibility that I might leave, and I am fulfilling that promise,” he wrote, adding that he had accepted the PAE position on Wednesday.
He defended the work his office had undertaken during the three and a half years he’d served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.
“I took this job knowing very well how difficult the issues you deal with every day were – and I can honestly say that we have accomplished far more than I would have thought possible,” he said. “Steadily and without fanfare, we have made principled decisions that support our forces and put in place credible policies that enhance our national security.”
President Barack Obama appointed him to his post in February 2010.
The decision to send two Algerian detainees back to their homeland immediately sparked reactions from both supporters and critics of the detention center, where 166 men are incarcerated, 86 of whom have been cleared for release. The last prisoner transferred from Guantanamo was Omar Khadr, who was sent to Canada on Sept. 29 to serve out the remainder of an eight-year sentence he’d accepted as part of a plea bargain.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned that the administration “still had no plan for these hard-core terrorists if efforts to close Guantanamo are successful.”
“Sending them to countries where Al Qaida and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution,” he said in a statement.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said she supported the transfer of the two prisoners as well as closing Guantanamo.
“These two detainees were cleared for transfer years ago,” she said. “This is an important step toward closing the prison once and for all. At a cost of $454 million annually -- or $2.7 million per detainee – it is in the national security interests of the United States to transfer these detainees to their home countries rather than keep them at our isolated military base in Cuba.”
Officials declined to identify the two Algerians or say when they would be returned to their homeland and whether the Algerian government had agreed to special conditions for monitoring them once they arrive. Under U.S. law, Congress is to be notified 30 days in advance before a detainee is transferred, suggesting that the detainees are likely to remain in Guantanamo until sometime in August.
Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International’s Security and Human Rights program, said there still were concerns about the destinations of the detainees to be transferred.
“The crucial questions are whether the detainees want to be transferred to Algeria and whether they will face human rights violations there,” he said in an email. “Closing the detention facility must not mean transferring people to torture, indefinite detention or unfair trials.”
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that Lietzau notified his staff that he was leaving the Pentagon on the day before the transfer of the two detainees was announced.
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.